Moonshine: The Black Tradition of Distilling ‘White Whiskey’

Culinary appropriation is a thorny phenomenon to pin down. More or less everything we consume came to be through hybrid, murky lineages: people move (whether by choice or by force), communities clash and interact, and tastes evolve. Very few food items have a neat, uncontested origin story. But as Lauren Michele Jackson shows in her Eater essay on the erasure of black influence from artisanal-food culture, some trends are impossible to deny. Black labor and black innovation had been instrumental for many American staples, yet by the time barbecue, beer, or malt liquor resurfaced in recent years as craft items with major cultural cachet, they’d been (and still are being) thoroughly whitewashed. The same goes for what might be the whitest of spirits (in the popular imagination, at least): moonshine.

For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.

The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”

But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.

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